Our last holiday was booked through a travel agent. After it had been arranged I was informed—by my partner—of some of the preparatory errands that needed to be ran, one of which was the acquisition of suitcases.
“We don’t have any, so we need to borrow some.”
“No, you need to borrow a suitcase.”
It was my intention to take a single backpack, as I had done on other holidays. But, as so often happens, questions, worries and what-ifs took over and we ended up with a backpack and a suitcase each. I was a little annoyed as I prefer to travel light, as opposed to heavy. However, there was some upside: having a suitcase meant I could take more books than usual.
The trip itself was relatively flawless: the journey out and back was easy, and our week abroad, together, was beautiful. But whilst lounging on the empty beaches and floating in the warm, blue sea, I kept thinking about the notion of travelling. Specifically, the different ways one can do it. I came up with three spectra: light or heavy, slow or fast, and near or far.
The light-heavy spectrum is concerned, at one end, with necessity, and at the other with possibility. The person who travels light takes only (and sometimes less than) what is needed. The person who travels heavy takes things just in case—extra shoes, extra shorts, more potions and lotions, a bit more money, wet and winter gear to a moderate clime. The slow-fast spectrum is concerned with distance covered over time. A slow traveller takes hours to go ten miles; a fast traveller traverses the globe in under twenty-four hours. The near-far spectrum is the simplest and not in need of explanation.
The three spectra taken together yield eight possible ways to travel, listed below with an example and a name that, hopefully, acts as a narrative hook.
1. “The Walker” (Light, slow, near.)
Wanders hills, fields and forests on foot, carrying only that which provides a minimum level of sustenance, shelter and warmth.
2. “The Van Dweller” (Light, fast, near.)
Undertakes rapid pilgrimages to the countryside, the mountains and the coast, taking their abode with them and carrying all the gear necessary to bike, surf or climb for a weekend.
3. “The Pack Leader” (Heavy, slow, near.)
The head of the family herds up the children, crams anything that the pack might possibly need over the next week into the estate and onto its roof, and heads off down the motorway, stopping at every service station en route to preserve their sanity for just a little longer.
4. “The Person of Stature” (Heavy, fast, near.)
Imagine an old-school statesman. Wherever they went, their retinue went with them, and so did a hefty amount of baggage, often loaded into the next carriage of the train they were taking to get to their summer home upstate.
5. “The World Tourer” (Light, slow, far.)
With panniers firmly affixed to bicycle racks, The Tourer makes their way through villages, towns and cities, engaging with local culture and people, and savouring every pedal stroke.
6. “The C-Level Nomad” (Light, fast, far.)
With everything they own packed obsessively into their unique Kickstarter-sourced backpack, C-Level Nomads are always in transit but never out-of-touch. They whip through airports, sail through the skies, take Ubers to their AirBnBs and spend their days in a co-working space co-ordinating the actions of their globally distributed team.
7. “The Sheikh” (Heavy, slow, far.)
Coming from the Middle East to the metropolises of the West for weeks at a time, The Sheikhs are preceded by messengers and officials and take over entire upper levels of the most expensive hotels, receiving dignitaries and other Notable People, whilst exasperating porters and other service staff in the process with the luxuries they expect to be available around the clock.
8. “The Icon” (Heavy, fast, far.)
Crossing states, crossing borders, crossing continents, performing one night after another after another for months on end, The Icon travels in a blaze of purpose and opulence Their staff handles the details, their schedule, their priorities. All they have to do is prepare and perform, night after night.
I don’t know about you, but the archetypes above are what I attach to the different means of travel. But how do I, myself, like to travel? Answer: light and slow.
ON TRAVELLING LIGHT
Travelling light compels me to think about that which I don’t need. Which is why I like it. So much of modern life is clutter, things we have just because we can have them, things we purchase even though their use to us is transient. Travelling light does away with this modern tendency to accumulate and forces me to question the value of that which I choose to take with me. It also has the handy side-effect of reducing anxiety and stress—with less to carry there is less to worry about, practically and existentially.
Of course, there is a dark side to the desire to travel light. As Zygmunt Bauman points out in Liquid Modernity, the virtues of lightness and liquidity can morph into vices when you begin to see everything as replaceable and all within reach should you need it. I haven’t reached that stage. If I do have to take something with me I prefer it to be a tool that lasts, a more expensive device intended to last a lifetime.
At the deepest level, I think my preference for travelling light is a response to my inability to be happy and at-ease with my position of relative comfort. Having more than most—historically and in comparison to my contemporaries around the world—often feels like it still isn’t enough, and travelling light is one way for me to practice appreciation of and satisfaction from less.
ON TRAVELLING SLOW
Travelling slow is simpler to understand. I’ve said it before:
“Speed places a constraint on experience. It narrows the vision. It sharpens the ears. It quickens the breath. If life is measured in terms of psychological and physiological arousal then speed kicks us onto a higher plane of existence. But life is not just about arousal. Life can also be about stillness, about appreciation, about noticing, about presence. And speed is the enemy of these things.”
Thus, I want to travel slow because travelling slow allows me the opportunity to see more, even if I don’t always take it.
Another way of thinking about it: the person travelling fast is concerned primarily with the reaching of their destination. Their “journey” is a “journey” in the truest sense of the word—a means to an end. They leave in order to arrive. But for the person travelling slow, every moment can be a destination, a place to arrive at, be at ease in, and appreciate.
The synthesis of travelling slow and light results, in my imagination, in a traveller who can immerse himself in and experience wherever he happens to be. Lightness and slowness are, to me, the means of travel most amenable to a full and unfettered experience of every place that isn’t home.